The future of farming is here — and it isn’t flying tractors but self-driving ones. Precision agriculture’s latest push is autonomous tractors, self-driving tractors that can be programmed or remotely controlled to perform certain duties. Pitched as more efficient and more farm-productive, autonomous tractors are just beginning to appear on the market.
The shift to automation will be gradual, said Scott Shearer, professor and chair of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering department at Ohio State University but is coming nevertheless.
“It’s going to be one of those things where things are going to start out slow, it’s going to pick up speed,” Shearer told Farm and Dairy. “There’s gonna be farmers that figure out how to use the technology to make money. And I think, ultimately, the marketplace determines how quickly automation is adopted.”
What are autonomous tractors?
The idea of driverless tractors sounds new but has actually been around since the 40s when farmer Frank W. Andrew built one by looping a cable from the tractor’s front steering arm to a barrel in the field.
Of course, since then, driverless tractors have evolved to contain better technology, including GPS-enabled cameras, radars and lighters for navigation and the ability to process and track their own position and speed to avoid obstacles on the ground using artificial intelligence, or AI.
In fact, Shearer credits the most recent innovations in autonomous tractors to John Deere’s creation of the AI-driven vision system for collision avoidance.
John Deere released its first fully autonomous tractor back in 2022 at the Consumer Electronic Show. The company combined the John Deere 8R tractor with a TruSet-enabled chisel plow, GPS and AI. Using AI, the tractor has the ability to navigate on its own and stop when obstacles appear in its path.
At the 2023 Consumers Electronic Show, John Deere debuted another autonomous tractor, taking AI tractors a step further. The machine, called the See and Spray Ultimate, uses cameras and AI technology to detect which crops are in the field and determines the appropriate course of action; whether it be spraying it with an herbicide or laying fertilizer.
The John Deere fully autonomous tractors have yet to appear on the marketplace, however, Sabanto, an agricultural technology company, has already released an autonomy kit for Kubota M5 tractors, allowing operators to turn their already existing tractors into autonomous ones. The Sabanto autonomy kit will be at the upcoming Farm Science Review, Shearer said.
What are the benefits?
There are three ways autonomous tractors will benefit farmers in the long run, according to Shearer, who has focused some of his academic research on autonomous vehicle production systems.
First, as the weather becomes more unpredictable, it will allow farmers to spend less time in the tractor and more time completing tasks that a machine can’t, he said.
“As we move forward, if that tractor were able to operate 24/7, we get better asset utilization,” Shearer said.
It will also help with the skilled labor shortage in the farming industry, specifically during busy times of the year like springtime field operations and fall harvest. “During those peak work times, if farmers were able to relegate part of those tasks to autonomous tractors, that’s a bit of a game changer,” Shearer said.
Lastly, with the move toward autonomous tractors, tractors in general will become smaller and more affordable with no need for a human operator.
Since a human operator is still required in a tractor, horsepower and size have been increasing over the years as space and luxury become more of a priority for farmers. Shearer said the continued trend toward bigger tractors may be bad for soil health and compaction.
Taking the human out of the tractor seat reduces the number of amenities needed in a tractor like leather seats and air conditioning. As a result, once autonomous tractors become more available on the market, they will be less expensive.
There are potential downsides to this technology, specifically when it comes to the operator being more removed. These problems can occur when unforeseeable circumstances happen in the field when this technology is programmed to make decisions with only select information.
Shearer gives an example of the AI-driven vision system for collision avoidance in autonomous tractors that is supposed to detect obstacles in the field and stop to prevent a collision. He says the tractor may not recognize unfamiliar objects that can fall as a result of severe weather like billboards or trees. Similar to autonomous cars, unpredictable or severe weather will also be an obstacle in which autonomous tractors will not be able to function.
At the moment, tractors have reached level three autonomy, meaning the operator has been removed from the tractor but still needs to monitor it from another location, Shearer said once autonomy reaches levels four and five, the tractor will be able to make more of its own decisions without human assistance.
Shearer is working on a project with students from Ohio State University to test autonomous tractors. The project combines the adoption of crop-growing solar fields with autonomous tractors.
The project will explore numerous opportunities for the future of solar farming such as grazing animals underneath solar panels and growing and harvesting crops like hay, grain, soybeans, wheat and short stature corn.
Because of the narrow spacing between solar panels, small equipment needs to be used — which is where the autonomous tractor comes in. Using a Sabanto automation package on a Kubota M5 tractor, the tractor will perform multiple duties including spraying, fertilizing, tillage, seeding, mowing, raking and bailing operations.
Shearer said the location where the project will take place is currently under construction but will be finished within the next month, which is when they will begin seeding hay. It will be a multi-year project and are expected to begin harvesting hay and grazing animals in the 2024 growing season.
To learn more
Interested parties can attend the Farm Science Review, in London, Ohio, between Sept. 19 to 21. There will be daily demonstrations at 12:30 p.m. showcasing Ag Innovation Demos like autonomous tractors and irrigation systems at the Trotter Field Demo Area. There will also be a Tailgate Talk at 9 a.m. Sept. 20 about Precision Ag and Autonomous with John Fulton, of the Agronomic Crops Team, at 1240 Friday Avenue.
(Reporter Liz Partsch can be reached at email@example.com.)
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